BY RICHARD MARINUCCI
In “HIRING MISTAKES” (FIRE Engineering, March 2008), the root of the problem I discussed was a poor hirea day-one deviation. As we analyzed some problems and the people who create them, you discovered that there were signs in the past that indicated the inevitable. A failure to invest in good hiring practices and perform due diligence can lead you to expend much time and money trying to fix problems that you could have avoided in the first place.
Even with the best practices and proper energy and effort committed to the selection process, you can make mistakes. There is no guarantee no matter what you do. Employees destined to create problems can get through on occasion and may not raise any red flags early in their career. Mostly, this means that they successfully complete their probationary period without incident. They now may enjoy additional employment protections that make “fixing” the problem a bit more challenging. There are also cases where good employees go bad because of some personal or work-related life-changing experience. This is rare, but I must mention it as a possibility, because these cases may have more extenuating circumstances and may be more emotionally based.
Almost always, the problem children that make it through their probation will cause problems that require attention. I recall an employee who once went his first year without one sick leave. Immediately after being confirmed, he started using the leave he accrued more than anyone else in the department. He hit the limit very quickly and was counseled. He subsequently figured out the rules and was consistently pushing the policy to the limit. Of course, information became available that indicated that this behavior should not be a surprise. A better hiring process would have caught this and saved lots of headaches. But, as I said, nothing is perfect. You now have to address these issues as they arise.
Firefighters who successfully complete their probation become part of the “family,” meaning they now get the benefit of the doubt from their fellow employees; a certain amount of loyalty; and the protection of a labor group, where applicable. Most supervisors avoid disciplining and discharging these firefighters and are generally ill-prepared to administer these punishments, even when they have no choice. Friendships, personalities, and a supervisor’s tendency not to “rock the boat” keep problem children from correcting their nonconforming ways.
Good policies and training are the best strategy and tactics. The policies need to be well written and clear. All employees need to know their content, especially the critical ones. The policies must comply with applicable laws and any labor agreements in place. Personnel more easily accept and comply with policies they have drafted. Though some circumstances may not lend themselves to this approach, often the vast majority of employees understand the need for clear and effective policies to maintain organizational discipline (because you hire and promote the right people). You do not always need to start from scratch. There are many ways to get sample policies on the very important issues. Enlist the support of your Human Resources Department or labor attorney. Be aware that those outside the fire service, because they do not understand the fire service culture and unique challenges, may give you opinions and advice with which you don’t agree. That is okay, and you need to move forward as the final decision maker in the end.
Employees need to know the policies that exist. They do not have to memorize them all. Actually, few do. Regardless, make it clear that employees are responsible for knowing the content of the policies. It is suggested that new employees be made to acknowledge this responsibility by taking an oath as they begin their career or by signing a written acknowledgment of their having been informed. Post new policies for a reasonable time, depending on your work schedule, so that everyone has the chance to see them. You may have to explain some policies to ensure that all members understand them. Consider having all employees sign or initial a significant policy document, to confirm that they have seen it and so they cannot deny having knowledge of it at a later date.
As a side note, I recently learned that professional football teams record all of their meetings, video and audio, so that the players pay attention and cannot deny that they were informed. How do you think that would be received in the fire service?
Training is the second half of the equation to reduce or eliminate the problems. New employees who receive great training are most likely to respond as you wish they would. Intense training will set apart those with the best abilities. You can set a good foundation at the beginning of a career, but the training you provide to your company and command officers may be more important. Often, the training provided is emergency-based and designed to prepare the officer for tactical and strategic decisions. Of course, most chiefs know that they rarely face problems in this area. The problems that make it to the chief’s desk are not generated on the fireground. Chiefs, command officers, and first-line supervisors deal with human-relations issues. If you were to check the training file of each of these positions, you may not find much preparation for this part of the job. Although time is precious, it would behoove your organization to invest in the resources to provide training in this area. As with all prevention programs, there must be an up-front investment for benefits later.
Design the training, first, to prevent problems. It will not fix everything. Therefore, your supervisors need to understand their roles and accept their responsibility to properly administer discipline. Supervisors elect to take their positions, so they need to understand and accept everything in the job description, including the need to gain compliance with department policies and procedures. Discipline may be needed. Not all problems are the chief’s. Problems need to be addressed at the appropriate level of the organization. Supervisors need to be given the tools to properly carry out their responsibilities. Educate and train to the level of performance expected.
Almost everyone wants to do a good job. Make sure they know what that “good job” is.
Problem children that slip through the cracks of your hiring practices and successfully complete their probation can, and most likely will, create problems in your organization. You will spend an inordinate amount of time on the few. An overwhelming number of people in the fire service do not cause problems and want to do a good job. They will, with the right direction. Those who choose not to play by the rules need to be corrected. Hiring is expensive (and not fun for me). I hope all employees turn out to be great. Therefore, it is paramount to establish a corrective discipline process intended to improve performance. Don’t let poor or inappropriate performance slide, and do not let supervisors “carry” problem makers. The earlier you address their problems, the better the chance for a good outcome. It gets harder to remove a bad employee the longer he is employed. No one wins when that happens. Regardless, have good rules, know what they are, follow them, apply them to everyone, and make sure everyone uses them as intended. Get the employees back on track, or get rid of them.
RICHARD MARINUCCI has been chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department since 1984. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1997-98 and chair of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as senior advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and acting chief operating officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the director for his efforts. Marinucci has three B.S. degrees: in secondary education from Western Michigan University, in fire science from Madonna College, and in fire administration from the University of Cincinnati. He was the first graduate of the Open Learning Fire Service Program at the University of Cincinnati (summa cum laude) and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1995.